By Hannah Branigan & Bobbie Lyons
It may not seem like it, but training for and competing in obedience (and related sports like Rally and Freestyle), have significant athletic requirements on your dog’s body. In fact, it’s not uncommon to run into physical limitations when trying to train for the precise and enthusiastic performance of your dreams. So often, this lack of enthusiasm is read as a motivational problem, but often it’s that the movement is physically hard for the dog.
In fact, if you think about how motivation works, you need a lot more motivation to do stuff that is hard or physically demanding, and a lot less motivation to do stuff that feels easy to you. We can solve that problem by either trying to find or cultivate stronger reinforcers in an effort to “Build motivation” (which is certainly a good use of time), AND we can also incorporate exercises into our training programs to make the behaviors required for the sport feel as easy and effortless as possible.
That’s where having a fitness program can help!
Canine fitness training can improve how a dog uses his body by making him more aware of his feet and improving the overall use of each limb. A dog that knows how to move and has the strength to move fluidly will show in the conformation ring with stronger attributes.
- Benefits of canine fitness for both handler and dog:
- Improved movement and length of stride
- Improved posture, balance and shape
- Improved musculature
- Improved stability as the trunk becomes stronger
- Increased power in the center of gravity
- Improved performance during exercise and sports activities
- Improves overall stability while decreases the chance of injury
Canine fitness training uses inflatable balance props, cavaletti poles, boxes, platforms and other things naturally found in the environment to improve a dog’s limb awareness, balance and overall strength.
Obedience requires some complex muscle movements that don’t seem obvious at first glance. It’s easy (or maybe easiER) to see how flashy, speed exercises like jumping and retrieving can benefit from stronger muscles. It’s not as easy to recognize how much strength, balance, and coordination is required for beautiful heeling.
Most dogs aren’t born with the ability to shift their weight back and use their hindquarters to control their movements the way we need for flashy, collected, precise heeling. As a result, those muscles don’t get used as often and tend to be weaker. Skills training can help the dog learn HOW to use those muscles to make the behavior happen, and fitness training can make those muscles stronger so that the dog can perform the behavior better and for longer.
Position changes are another place where strength and balance have a big impact. That perfect Fold-back Down of your dreams requires a strong core and rear weight shift that doesn’t always come for free. Stronger glutes make folding back, whether stationary or at speed (as in the Drop on Recall), a lot easier!
Tucked Sits and Kickback Stands are both front end dominant behaviors, so the stronger your dog’s shoulders are, the better able to plant those feet for a sharp transition. Of course, a strong - and symmetrical - core will keep them be straight and square as well as break with their whole body instead of relying heavily on their shoulders and possibly slamming into you.
It’s also important to think about all the exercises in obedience that involve fast accelerations and decelerations. Starting and stopping quickly means fighting inertia and that’s hard on a body! Stopping “a body in motion” on a dime to pick up a dumbbell cleanly or dropping from a run into a perfect fold-back down takes muscle strength. We all dream of a wicked fast recall that ends in a sharp, precise front, right? To get that sharp front, you have got to have good brakes! This is another place where fitness and motivation can have a lot of overlap. If stopping from speed is very hard, one way a dog can compensate is by not going very fast in the first place.
Look at how many starts and stops there are in a simple retrieve on the flat. Your dog starts of sitting in heel position, then (on cue, hopefully) explodes forward (acceleration), stops as he reaches the dumbbell (deceleration), picks it up and changes DIRECTION completely, and then runs back toward you (acceleration), to come to stop in front (deceleration). Good grief, it’s worse than driving in city traffic! The easier each of those components feels to your dog, the less costly the whole exercise will be from a reinforcement perspective, and also the better equipped your dog will be to land each of those moves with precision.
Of course, the best part is most “fitness” exercises are a lot like tricks. In fact, a lot of them ARE tricks, and all you have to do is build them into your training plan in a way that applies the principles of fitness.
A few foundation skills you can make use of:
- Standing on things
- Targeting - Front foot, rear foot, nose target, chin target.
- Weight shifting
- Zen games
NOTE: any directional movements should be done in both directions
Before starting a fitness program, be sure to generalize your dogs targeting behaviors to many objects. Often we have taught front feet on a feedpan but have never asked your dog to put front feet on other things. For fitness, there is a large variety of props that may be used so it is important for your dog to have generalized front and rear foot targeting.
We picked THREE exercises to get you started and hope that this helps you understand why canine fitness and strength training is so important to your obedience dog.
Weight shifting seems like a very basic concept but really it is about helping your dog gain a higher level of balance and strength so that they can perform other movements with more precision.
2.Asking for a paw (front or rear)
3.Nose touch at different heights
A “Pop-up” is basically a nose touch but where the front feet leave the ground. For exercises and movements that require your dog to shift more weight to the rear, the ability to “pop up” is essential.
A C-Stretch can help your dog, who is looking up for most of his life, to increase flexibility and elongate the muscles in the back of the neck, over the spine and down the back of the hind legs.
We hope this gives you a couple exercise to get started and to help you understand how fitness can improve your dog’s awareness of his limbs, overall strength and balance, ability to shift power to the rear, braking into position, fluidly moving through position changes and holding sustained positions.